How much does Venezuela matter to Hezbollah?
By Ana Maria Luca..
“Does Hezbollah have operations in Venezuela? Of course! They work in Venezuela and send the money to the Middle East.” This is an extract from an interview with the world’s fifth most-wanted drug kingpin, Walid Makled, also known as El Arabe, who was arrested in August 2010 in Colombia.
Soon after his arrest, Makled asked to be extradited to the United States and admitted on television to being very close to the Venezuelan government and having done business with high-ranking army officers and members of the government. He accused Venezuela’s political elite of involvement in cocaine trafficking and holding fundraising operations for Hezbollah and Colombian FARC guerillas.
The friendly relationship between Hezbollah and the Venezuelan government led by Hugo Chavez developed after the 2006 July War and grew into a tight ideological and business partnership, Lebanese experts say. According to US authorities, Venezuela acts as a safe heaven and a source of funding for Hezbollah members and supporters. But with Chavez’s health declining and uncertainty over who is going to succeed him and what kind of policy the new government will have, it is also unclear how Hezbollah and its partner Iran will deal with the change.
It was Chavez himself who reached out to Iran in 2001, and he visited Tehran several times to show his solidarity with the Islamic Republic against US foreign policy. In 2006, while Lebanon was under the Israeli offensive, the Venezuelan president expressed his support for Hezbollah. Chavez also stunned the UN General Assembly in 2006 with a speech in which he called US President George W. Bush “the devil” who acts like he owns the world. Hezbollah supporters in Dahiyeh carried pictures of him and chanted “thank you.”
Many analysts believe the relationship between Hezbollah and Venezuela is strictly political, and a regime change in Caracas will not necessarily influence the Party of God and its finances.
“Of course, the relations serve Hezbollah, but I don’t think that Venezuela’s future or fate is linked to it,” said political analyst and commentator Kassem Kassir, who writes for the NOW Arabic site.
“The suggestions Chavez made – Venezuela’s independence, confronting the US, the rapprochement with Iran on the international political level – reflected positively on Hezbollah-Venezuela relations. There is also Venezuela’s adoption of issues of general interest such as Palestine. In the July War, Venezuela took brave decisions against Israeli policy. This strengthened the relationship between Hezbollah and Venezuela too,” he added.
For his part, Al-Balad commentator Ali Al-Amine told NOW that “there are no indications that there is cooperation beyond this political or moral dimension or solidarity in the face of the US policy. No one spoke of a relationship at a military or security level. But this does not cancel [the presence of] merchants or businessmen who benefit from this relationship.”
But for the US and Colombian security agencies, these businessmen and how they make their money as well as where they send it are more important than any ideology.
Venezuela has a large Lebanese and Syrian community, and several officials and ministers in the government in Caracas are of Lebanese or Syrian descent. Tarek al-Ayssami, son of the Baath party leader in Venezuela, won the elections in the large state of Aragua last October. Aissami served as the head of the Immigration and Naturalization office in Caracas and he was appointed minister of interior in 2009. But during his mandate, according to Venezuelan opposition websites, he allegedly gave a large number of visas to young Lebanese and Syrian men. He has also been accused of recruiting Venezuelan youth of Arab descent to send them to Lebanon and Iran for training. His brother Firas al-Aissami and one of their cousins are also suspects in the Makled drug trafficking case.
A close friend of Aissami, Lebanese-born Venezuelan diplomat Ghazi Nasreddine, was blacklisted in 2008 by the US Department of Treasury for funding Hezbollah. According to a press release Nasreddine utilized his positions as a diplomat and the president of a Caracas-based Shiite Islamic center to provide financial support to Hezbollah. “He counseled Hizballah donors on fundraising efforts and has provided donors with specific information on bank accounts where the donors’ deposits would go directly to Hezbollah,” the press release read. The diplomat allegedly met with senior Hezbollah officials in Lebanon and facilitated the travel of party members to and from Venezuela to ask for donations for the Party of God.
The Treasury said that another Lebanese, Fawzi Kanaan, was the owner of two travel agencies in Caracas that facilitated travel of Hezbollah supporters between Venezuela and Lebanon. According to the Treasury’s press release, there was proof that Kanaan had been in Iran for training.
Aissami later denied any connection with any Hezbollah members travelling to and from Venezuela.
According to Kassir, it is not a secret that young Hezbollah supporters have been travelling to Venezuela for various events. “A number of students and young men went [to Venezuela] to participate in festivals, conferences and workshops. There were some consultants of Chavez who came to Beirut and visited Hezbollah officials,” Kassir explained, adding, however, that there is no official information about any military cooperation.
Amani Hamad contributed reporting to this article.
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Read this article in Arabic.